Equiano S Travels Analysis Essay

Jim Egan
Brown University

When Vincent Carretta argued in “Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa? New Light on Eighteenth-Century Question of Identity” in a 1999 issue of Slavery and Abolition that the eighteenth-century author might have been born in South Carolina rather than Africa, as Equiano himself states in The Interesting Narrative, a scholarly firestorm erupted over the question of this former slave’s place of birth. This is not the first time Equiano’s origins have been questioned. Equiano himself sought to refute claims published in late eighteenth-century English periodicals that he had been born in the West Indies. Such claims were, as Equiano himself knew, aimed at discrediting his narrative and, in the process, the abolition movement with which that narrative was associated. Carretta’s essay, on the other hand, called our attention to evidentiary matters that involve questions of interpretive theory. On what basis, after all, does one determine which instance of writing to consider authoritative when the evidence in these different kinds of sources conflict? Given the fact that Equiano’s narrative plays a crucial role in our understanding of a variety of historical, cultural, and literary issues, and given the fact that where you begin a story helps determine what you can say about that story and what work that story can do, I suppose the furor over Carretta’s claims is only to be expected. After all, is there anyone who would now deny the centrality of the slave trade in all its aspects to the emergence of the modern world? Equiano’s narrative plays a key role in such a narrative, and so his birth takes on special importance.

Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man (University of Georgia, 2005) extends Carretta’s research on Equiano’s origins to provide the first scholarly biography in over thirty years of the man known in the Western world for most of his life as Gustavus Vassa. Biographies pose a critical problem for any engaged, thoughtful twenty-first century scholar in that they rely on a notion of identity that has been challenged by a host of critical analyses interrogating the modern emergence of the very idea of the “individual.” Carretta avoids such issues entirely here. Instead, he simply takes modern biographical conventions at face value and uses them to tell the story of Equiano’s life and the development of his distinct and particular identity. Carretta aims, it seems to me, for a more general audience. I want to assess the work, then, in relation to what I take to be his implied audience. Judged from this perspective, Carretta has produced a clear, well-researched, and at times quite interesting biography.

The most interesting and successful chapters were the last three, chapters 12 through 14: “Making a Life,” “The Art of the Book,” and “A Self-Made Man.” These chapters are devoted to the years immediately preceding and following the publication of The Interesting Narrative. In this section of the book, Carretta provides some insightful, well-argued, readable, and sometimes quite engrossing analyses of, for instance, the significance of the book’s prefatory material, Equiano’s claims to social status, and the engraving of Equiano that accompanies the book. Carretta quite successfully and engagingly situates his analysis of these issues in relation to relevant social and literary materials outside of the book itself. “The Art of the Book” provides the most detailed argument that Equiano might have fabricated an African birth for rhetorical purposes by a rigorous analysis of the chapter where Equiano makes this claim, an analysis that is bolstered by Carretta’s reading this material alongside contemporaneous accounts of Africa, African history as we now know it, and the rhetorical needs and strategies of the abolitionist movement at large of which Equiano was a crucial part. I found his reading quite compelling. In the final chapter, “A Self-Made Man,” Carretta shows us in clear, readable prose the extent to which Equiano worked to promote his book alongside his work on behalf of the abolitionist movement until his death in 1797.

I will confess that I find biographies guilty pleasures—I enjoy reading them even though I am deeply suspicious of, if not overtly hostile to, the theory of identity on which they rely. Who doesn’t want to believe, after all, in the idea of individual identity on which such narratives depend? Unfortunately, I did not find this book to qualify as especially engaging. Given the fact that most of the information about Equiano’s life comes from the now canonical narrative Equiano wrote, a narrative with which my specialty in British-American writing before 1800 has made me quite familiar, Carretta faces a tough challenge with a reader such as myself (and I suspect a number of his readers will be in some position similar to mine). Add to this the fact that Carretta includes long sections of the Interesting Narrative here, and it is hardly surprising that I found much of the material quite familiar. Nonetheless, I would have expected the story itself to have been more compelling, and somehow Carretta made rather bland the story of a man who escaped slavery to travel around the world, participated himself in the slave trade, produced a book of extraordinary popularity, and participated in one of the major movements that helped change the face of the world in the abolition movement.

I also had certain questions about some key issues raised by Carretta’s narrative. I wondered, for instance, about the amount of agency Carretta grants individuals in the production and/or representation of their subject positions. So, for instance, when he is analyzing Equiano’s writings on Africa, Carretta says, “Equiano chose from the various subject positions available to him the one or ones most appropriate for the particular audience or audiences he is addressing. . . . Skilled rhetoricians know how to shift their positions, that is, how to emphasize different aspects of their identities to best influence and affect their readers or listeners” (256). In making his case for Equiano as a “masterful rhetorician,” Carretta emphasizes Equiano’s conscious intent, his literary choices. The inconsistencies and questions that arise in Equiano’s account of Africa, Carretta suggests, are neither simple mistakes nor flaws in his memory but the result of careful and skillful choices by the author. While I agree that Equiano is an extraordinarily talented writer, the theory Carretta uses above to authorize those skills offers, at best, a rather optimistic vision of individual agency. Equiano may very well have called on various subject positions in his writing of The Interesting Narrative as a way of increasing or focusing the particular rhetorical power of the book. But to claim such absolute power over a writer’s subject position seems flawed and, as a result, can produce a reading that lacks sufficient thoroughness because one simply fails to see the way in which powers outside the author’s control help produce significant aspects of the text. Were this an isolated instance, I suppose I would have overlooked it, but it was my sense that Carretta’s theory of the subject outlined above operates throughout the book as a whole. What I’ll call, for the moment, Equiano’s “racial” status, for instance, is one that, at least at times, he simply cannot chose to occupy or not. This status, in fact, might be said to inform virtually all of the incidents in his narrative, even those times when he explicitly says it does not or when he fails to mention his “racial” status at all. Or even when the documents make no mention of race. So, for instance, Carretta notes that Equiano “offers the merchant marine a vision of an almost utopian, microcosmic alternative to the slavery-infested greater world” (72). This world, Carretta tells us, “was one in which the content of his character mattered more than the color of his complexion” and where the “demands of the seafaring life permitted him to transcend the barriers imposed by what we call race” (72). I want to applaud several aspects of Carretta’s approach here. First of all, he reminds his reader here and elsewhere of the way in which the category of “race” as we understand it originates during the very period of Equiano’s life, rather than simply being a historically transcendent category. Second, I found his effort to read the material without the presupposition that certain kinds of discrimination or mistreatment on the basis of one’s “racial” status were a given—even if they weren’t mentioned—an excellent approach. Third, his careful attention to the specific language used in the documents he consulted in writing Equiano’s biography I found impressive. In other words, Carretta does not assume that racial prejudice exists when it is not noted.

On the other hand, such an approach might very well miss much of the complex cultural work embedded in the language but not explicitly stated. Carretta suggests that Equiano has such an extraordinary memory and is such a skilled rhetorician, that we can be confident he would have found a way to include any racially charged incidents. Their absence, for Carretta, suggests they did not occur and, as a result, that we should see Equiano’s life in the British Navy at various times as being a place in which racial distinctions did not matter. During these periods, it is as if Equiano is, if you’ll forgive me, just a regular Joe—one of the guys. While I am sympathetic to some aspects of the method Carretta seems to use to portray Equiano in this way, I am quite skeptical that this is an accurate way to narrate the story. In the first place, as even Carretta notes, Equiano’s memory of his life abroad the ship might be faulty. In the second place, Equiano, as Carretta so ably demonstrates elsewhere, might have chosen to omit such incidents for rhetorical purposes. As if this were not enough, even if Equiano implies that he was judged entirely on the merits of his work rather than on his racial identity, we do not have to accept his judgment. Even if he was at times treated as “just-another-sailor,” for instance, he becomes special, unusual precisely for this reason. What makes Equiano special is that he is not treated as special.

I also wanted more discussion of the issues surrounding Equiano’s birthplace. Oddly enough, Carretta seems rather reluctant to explore this issue, or even to be especially forceful in making his argument. Indeed, Carretta’s provides enough qualifications that it can hardly be called an argument. He says on more than one occasion that we will never be able to know for certain for his subject was born, and he notes that while he has raised “reasonable doubt” about what Equiano claims about his birth in The Interesting Narrative, “reasonable doubt is not the same as conviction” (xv).

In spite of these qualifications, Carretta shows great analytical skills in his discussion of the possible rhetorical benefit of Equiano’s invention of an African birth. He carefully and insightfully examines the first chapter of the narrative where Equiano discusses Africa, and he situates this chapter in relation to other writings of the time with a power and clarity that are quite impressive. Equiano’s masterful invention of an African birth, Carretta argues, demonstrates that Equiano’s “literary achievements have been vastly underestimated” (xiv). “If nothing else,” Carretta tells us, he “hope[s] that Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man demonstrates how skillful a writer Equiano was” (xv). But surely more is at stake in claiming that Equiano “invented” rather than “reclaimed” an African identity than our evaluation of the literary talents of a particular individual? As I mentioned above, Carretta’s argument for an American birthplace relies heavily on baptismal records and ship’s registers. While he spends about a page demonstrating that the person whom he identifies as Equiano is, in fact, him and, then, explaining that Equiano could very well have listed an African birthplace, he tends to read these documents with less care than he does The Interesting Narrative. To be sure, a baptismal record and a ship’s register represent different kinds of writing than a spiritual autobiography. Nonetheless, they too must be read. So while Carretta rightly points out that other analysts have often treated Equiano’s story in his book as a kind of transparent recollection of his life while considering the baptismal records in need of a thorough reading in order to be properly understood, Carretta reverses this interpretive strategy by taking the documents as having little rhetorical content worth reading.

In addition to reading the “non-literary” materials in a more literary way, I would have liked Carretta to explore more thoroughly the implications of relying on one kind of evidence rather than another. He writes, “[a]nyone who still contends that Equiano’s account of the early years of his life is authentic is obligated to account for the powerful conflicting evidence.” While I suppose this is true, his approach to the problem he has raised left me wanting more. How might the elevation of Equiano’s literary status, I wanted to know, change the way we tell, say, the literary histories of the United States and/or Great Britain? Might the change in birthplace alter the way we tell Transatlantic history more broadly? Or the history of modern race-based slavery? I would have appreciated a more thorough discussion—indeed, any discussion—of the disciplinary and institutional implications of accepting Carretta’s argument or not. Why is it that people have reacted so passionately to the notion that Equiano might have fibbed about where he was born in The Interesting Narrative? What does such debate indicate about the stakes involved in telling the life story of an eighteenth-century slave turned author? Perhaps Carretta failed to include such material because the imagined audience for this book would, in his and/or the publisher’s view, be uninterested in such issues. I think this is untrue. What could be more compelling and current than the question of the implications of where a man whose identity we now call “black” was born? From my view, at least, the problems Carretta’s book raises about Equiano intersect directly with questions and issues I see debated quite frequently as I flip by the Fox News Channel and skim through The New York Times.

Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 African Slavery in the Caribbean and the Interesting Narrative
2.1 Society and Slavery
2.2 Africa, Africans and the Slave Trade
2.3 The Rise of the Caribbean Slave Societies
2.4 Working Conditions and Treatment of Slaves
2.5 Equiano’s Manumission and Mercantile Activities

3 Evaluation and Criticism


1 Introduction

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself is the astonishing and moving autobiography of an 18th century slave. The author, the aforementioned Olaudah Equiano[1], tells the story of his life, recounting events such as his capture in Africa at early childhood, the notorious Middle Passage, his time in the service of the Quaker Robert King, his life as a freedman in the Caribbean, and finally his involvement in the abolitionist cause.

This term paper will be concerned with the author’s observations of the conditions of slavery in the West Indies, made first as a slave to Mr King, later as a free businessman. His account will be checked against external evidence drawn from a number of scholarly sources. The comparison includes the development of the slave trade in Africa and the rise of the Caribbean slave societies in the light of the ‘sugar revolution’, although the working conditions of slaves, together with the treatment of freedmen, will be at the centre of attention. While my original interest lay in researching the accuracy of Equiano’s version, my fascination gradually shifted from the ‘if’ to the ‘why’ and brought the question of identity into play. What with the restricted dimensions of this essay, the critical evaluation in the final chapter cannot provide the full range of answers, but offer a profound basis for a more specialist examination of the topic of identity in slave narratives.

2 African Slavery in the Caribbean and the Interesting Narrative

2.1 Society and Slavery

Although the present analysis considers slavery within fairly closely-defined geographic boundaries and a specific time frame, it is of interest to briefly look at it from a more general perspective and to establish a universal framework for a broader understanding of the topic.

Slavery is a phenomenon that can be found in all ages and across all societies. Klein calls slaves “the most mobile labor force available” due to their “lack of ties to the family, to kin, and to the community” (1986, p. 1), which allowed them to be employed for a large variety of purposes. Turley (2000) distinguishes two types of societies in which slavery could exist.[2] He points out that, historically, most societies were not dependent on slaves and could well do without them; he therefore calls them societies with slaves. Under these circumstances, slaves were often used to allow their masters greater comfort, e.g. as domestic servants, or to perform manual labour that was deemed too ‘dirty’ or dangerous for others, such as in the mining industry. The vast majority of societies worked according to this principle. By contrast, “slavery as a system of industrial or market production was a much more restricted phenomenon”. (Klein, 1986, p. 2) In this case, slaves not only played an important role in the domestic sector, but also fulfilled a vast number of administrative tasks and were a crucial factor for the economic welfare of the system they were subjected to; hence the name slave societies (cf. Turley, 2000). The earliest examples of slavery becoming such a dominant factor were the Greek poleis and the Roman Empire, the latter of which can be seen as the forerunner of the slave societies in the Caribbean and North America in terms of customs and legislation. The “Romans can be said to have created a modern slave system which would be similar to those established in the Western Hemisphere from the 16th to the end of the 19th century.” (Klein, 1986, p. 5)

The following chapters aim to see Olaudah Equiano’s individual observations of the Caribbean slave trade as found in the Interesting Narrative against the background of a more objective description based on the works of various renowned scholars in the field. We will begin by exploring the history of slavery in Africa and the beginnings of the transatlantic trade with the Americas which were the prerequisites for the formation of the West Indian slave societies.

2.2 Africa, Africans and the Slave Trade

We know from Equiano himself that already as a boy, the concept of slavery is by no means alien to him. On page 46, he informs the reader that “[m]y father, besides many slaves, had a numerous family, of which seven lived to grow up, including myself and a sister, who was the only daughter”. (Equiano, 2003) It is curious how he passes over this fact without any alarm, treating it as a mere footnote almost too trifling in its nature to be even worth mentioning. This impression is further intensified by his description of the household in Tinmah he is sold to and lives in for a while after his capture at the age of eleven. Equiano, drawing a comparison between his own tribe and the people holding him now, observes that “[t]hey also had the same customs as we. There were likewise slaves daily to attend us [...]”. (p. 53) While this may be surprising to him initially, his awareness and acceptance of slavery from the outset will have a strong influence on his views and opinions of the matter in his later life.

When we look at the historical facts, we indeed find that as far as slavery was concerned, Africa was not in any way different from other continents, though in the time before the 15th century, the slave trade was primarily a domestic affair. Inter-tribal conflicts produced a lot of slaves that were distributed within Africa, although Muslim traders from the 8th century onwards took up selling slaves to other continents. It was the Portuguese who were the first Europeans to put foot on African soil when taking Ceuta in 1415 (cf. Russell-Wood, 2000²) and who would lay the foundations for the transatlantic trade.[3] After initially emulating the Muslim merchants, they began to ship Africans to their new settlements in America across the Atlantic. (cf. Klein, 1986)

From a modern viewpoint, the explanations brought forward by Europeans to justify the inferiority of black Africans border on the ridiculous. One is an interpretation of a story from the Book of Genesis. According to Moses, Ham, Noah’s son, found his father drunk and naked, laughed at him and then told his brothers about what he had seen. When Noah himself learned of the incident, he condemned all descendants of Ham to be servants forever. “The curse [...] seemed to provide a justification based on the Bible for inequality expressed in racial difference after the re-establishment of human society in the aftermath of the Flood.” (Turley, 2000, p. 27) Even though Donoghue reiterates Winthrop Jordan’s observation that no mention is ever made of skin colour in that passage, “expressly or implicitly”, (2008, p. 8) the story of Ham was nonetheless used as a powerful argument to justify slavery by European Christianity.[4]

A related and (at the time) equally acknowledged ‘reason’ is that of the perceived ‘Otherness’ of Africans in terms of colour and race. “As early as 1550, one English voyager to Africa recorded his conviction that Africans lacked all marks of civilization; they were ‘without a god, law, religion or common wealth’.” (p. 27) There was even a discussion about whether Africans actually qualified as humans. Donoghue draws attention to John Atkins, a surgeon in the (British) Royal Navy, who published his Voyage to Guinea, Brasil, and the West Indies in 1734, and expressed his

fascination upon encountering Africans with black skin and wooly hair during his travels in Guinea in 1720: ‘The black colour and wooly tegument of these Guineans, is what first obtrudes it self [sic] in our observation, and distinguishes them from the rest of mankind, who no where [sic] else in the warmest latitudes, are seen thus totally changed.’ (p. 7)

This led Atkins to the conclusion that whites and blacks do not share the same heritage. A Danish planter was outspoken in his belief “that their black skin gives proof of their wickedness and that they are destined to slavery, to the extent that they should have no freedom”. (quoted in: ibid., p. 7)

In her essay Filling Up the Space Between Mankind and Ape (2007), Salih depicts the contemporary perspective which regarded some humans as “more human than others” (p. 96) and ranked Africans in the vicinity of or even alongside orang-utans on the grounds of their visual likeness. “Long [author of the History of Jamaica ] accordingly inventorize[d] the visual ‘marks’ of bestiality in black people” (p. 105), which ranged from the features of their face to their “bestial” manners, and he concluded “that they are a difference [sic] species of the same genus”. (quoted in: Salih, 2007, p. 106) He even suggested regular sexual intercourse between male apes and female Africans. According to Donoghue, Atkins treaded a similar path by presenting several anecdotes in support of his viewpoint, one of which told “of a Captain Flower who had [...] returned to England with the disemboweled and preserved genitals of an “ourang outang”. In Atkins [sic] reasoning, the fact that the genitals of the baboon and the Negro were very much alike offered further proof of the beastly affinity of the two kinds of animals.” (Donoghue, 2008, p. 14)

The instances presented here are proof to the astounding creativity displayed by whites when it comes to providing explanations for the subjugations of both Indians and Africans. These popular conceptions of the time gave the Europeans “a mindset attuned to colour and race difference as a basis for slavery.” (Turley, 2000, p. 27) Grouped with the reputation that Africans were hard workers and particularly suited for tropical conditions, it seemed to make them the ideal choice for plantation labour in the Caribbean slave societies which will be described in the next part.

2.3 The Rise of the Caribbean Slave Societies

African slavery in the Caribbean came into existence shortly after Columbus claimed the American continent for the Spanish crown in 1492, making it “a late development in the evolution of slavery in human society.” (Klein, 1986, p. 1) Portugal, one of the other leading colonial powers of the time, immediately followed suit, and the two countries began to cultivate their New World territories. As early attempts to enslave the Native American Indians proved unsuccessful, mainly due to infections with and death from European diseases, the Portuguese fell back on their expertise in the trade of Africans. Together with the Spaniards, they were the first to ship slaves to their freshly established overseas settlements. These two countries can thus be seen as the pioneers of the transatlantic slave trade. Over the next 300 years, an estimated 10 million Africans would be taken across the ocean and be put to work there. (cf. Klein, 1986)

In their earlier days as African colonisers, the Portuguese had already identified sugar as a crop promising high output and commercial success on plantations on Madeira, the Azores and São Tomé, and they set about exploring the same path in Brazil, which they now held. Eventually the country became the market leader in sugar output and in this way attracted the interest of other colonial powers such as England and France, who envied the ongoing success of their Iberian rivals. Attacks by both parties on the Spanish holdings of Jamaica (England) and Santo Domingo (France) handed them strongholds they would not relinquish again. But where Portuguese and Spaniards had struggled to turn the local population into an efficient workforce, their northern competitors were faced with an obstacle of a different nature: there simply were no Indians where they had dropped anchor. So at the beginning of the ‘sugar revolution’ in 1640, there were only a few imported African slaves present in the area, while the majority of the workforce consisted of indentured whites. (cf. Turley, 2000) Yet both France and England would eventually turn to Africa for their supply of slaves and take over the leading roles in the trade, so that “[b]y the end of the 17th century, then, a whole new sugar and slave complex had emerged in the French and British West Indies.” (Klein, 1986, p. 53) So dominant did the British become, in fact, that they were responsible for at least 45 % of the total number of slaves shipped across the Atlantic in the whole 18th century. (cf. Turley, 2000)

With commerce and the number of plantations growing and the transatlantic trade in full flow, population figures in the Caribbean increased dramatically. Turley reports that “by 1750 in Barbados, out of a total population of just over 80,000, slaves numbered some 63,000 and whites almost 17,000.” (2000, p. 79) In Jamaica, which Klein calls “proto-typical” (1986, p. 55) for West Indian plantation societies, blacks outnumbered whites by a staggering ten to one: out of a total population of 142,000, almost 128,000 were slaves (cf. Turley, 2000), 75 % of whom were involved in the sugar business. These figures suggest that already by that time the slave plantation system had been properly established in the Caribbean (and on the whole continent). 1.4 million slaves of direct or American-born African descent, or 40 % of the total number of African and Afro-American slaves in America, were bound in the sugar commerce, the single largest occupation.

One of the slaves to arrive in the West Indies during the time of the sugar revolution is Olaudah Equiano. He comes to Montserrat in 1763 at the probable age of 18[5], after a life already full of events including: capture at the age of eleven and sale within Africa (as related in chapter 2.2); the Middle Passage and subsequent arrival in Barbados, from where he is sold to England; his extended stint on board of various naval vessels in the service of Captain Pascal and the disappointment of being denied his freedom.

In Montserrat, he is sold to Robert King, a Quaker and according to Equiano “the first merchant in the place” (Equiano, 2003, p. 99) who makes him a clerk and involves him in his various transactions between the West Indies and his hometown Philadelphia. At first Equiano is made to perform exclusively manual labour: “I have rowed the boat [laden with several goods], and slaved at the oars, from one hour to sixteen in the twenty-four.” (p. 101) But very soon he is handed a multitude of other duties requiring more advanced skills and he has

the good fortune to please my master in every department in which he employed me . . . I often supplied the place of a clerk, in receiving and delivering cargoes to the ships, in tending stores, and delivering goods: . . . I used to shave and dress my master when convenient, and take care of his horse; . . . I worked likewise on board of different vessels of his. By these means I became very useful to my master; (p. 103)

Equiano can consider himself very fortunate indeed to be in this position. He is, first of all, extremely lucky to be sold to England as a boy and then passed on to Captain Pascal. It is there that his undoubted talents are recognised and that he is allowed to advance them, e.g. reading and writing, basic mathematical skills and knowledge of how to sail a ship. Later, after being sold again instead of being granted his freedom, his merits and good behaviour render him attractive to Mr King, who buys him “on account of my [Equiano’s] good character” (p. 99) and always treats him exceptionally well, allowing him to do a little trading himself and thus, if unconsciously, paving him the way to freedom. We can therefore say that by a combination of skill and fortune he earns himself a life of comparative comfort and far fewer worries than most other slaves. We must remember that Equiano enters the service of Mr King when the sugar business is at its absolute peak and requiring huge numbers of workers. Of those 1.4 million slaves mentioned in chapter 2.3, around 80 % were actually properly working as compared to 55 % in modern Third World agricultural societies. (cf. Klein, 1986) Except for his early days as Mr King’s slave, Equiano seems never to have been engaged in hard manual labour. This makes him more of an exception than the rule. Also, the simple fact that he ends up where he does is interesting in itself.


[1] For reasons of convenience, I will exclusively use the name Equiano throughout this paper

[2] For a comprehensive account of the sociology of slavery in general, and a comparison of slave societies in particular, see Stinchcombe (1995)

[3] The full story can be found in Russell-Wood (2000²)

[4] For further details, see Donoghue (2008)

[5] I write ‘probable’ because his exact date of birth, as was so often testified in slave narrative, is unknown. Equiano himself suggests 1745 as the year in which he was born. (p. 32)


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